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How to help the grieving after suicide

When Kristen Clifford’s husband—Steven, a police officer—wasn’t responding to her text messages she became alarmed and drove home where she found notes, his police identification, his driver’s license, “everything laid out very neatly, methodically”, she recalled. Frightened, she rushed down the hallway to their bedroom to discover the door closed and another note stating, “I did it. Do not enter. Call 911.” Her 35-year-old husband had ended his life by suicide.

It’s not just an American issue. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show suicide rates creeping up over the last decade or so. For younger people, particularly, suicide is now at epidemic proportions—it’s the leading cause of death for 15 to 44-year-olds, particularly men, who are three times more likely to die at their own hand than women. But women’s suicide statistics spike in their early 50s—the menopause and “empty nest” years.

New Zealand’s suicide rate is the highest its ever been, with increases every year for four years running, according to stuff.co.nz. Maori men are over-represented, with 97 dying by suicide during 2017.

Internationally, the World Health Organization estimates that, each year, approximately one million people die from suicide, representing a global mortality rate of 16 people per 100,000 or one death every 40 seconds. Furthermore, it’s been estimated that every suicide death leaves behind an estimated six or more “suicide survivors”—family members and friends who are left grieving and struggling to understand.

Here are seven ways to help those grieving a suicide death:

#1. Be there. Show up and let them know that you care. “Comfort my people, says your God” is the instruction from the biblical prophet Isaiah (40:1). Although the stigma attached to suicide is softening, survivors continue to feel blemished and isolated. That’s why it’s important to make your presence felt as soon as you learn a family member or friend is grieving a suicide death. If you are geographically distant, call, text or send an email of support. If you are local, then simply be there—at the home, at the funeral service.

Kim Ruocco’s husband, a military pilot, came back from his deployment in Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder. After struggling with anxiety and depression, he died by suicide. During that difficult time, Ruocco says, “The people who were most helpful to me could be in my presence and tolerate my pain and didn’t have to say anything.”

“There are not right words really,” she recalls, “but it was comforting to have someone who can be with you with that much pain.”

#2. Be there to listen. Plan to listen far more than you speak. Any questions you ask should be for purposes of clarification and not intrusive or invasive. Rabbi Earl Grollman, author of Suicide: Prevention; Intervention, Postvention, states, “Bereaved people need to express their emotions. They can be encouraged to talk when others say, ‘What are you feeling? . . . . Tell me what is happening with you. . . . It must be very hard on you.’ Friends should focus on where they are. Accept their moods, whether they reflect fear or rage or panic. Friends are not there to judge, but to listen.”

serdjophoto—Getty Images

#3. Know what to say and what not to say. Be guided by this biblical wisdom: “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones” (Proverbs 16:24). Keep in mind that suicide grievers are struggling with a wide variety of confusing and conflicting emotions such as anger, guilt, regret, shock, denial and emptiness. Avoid adding to their pain by dropping trite cliches and meaningless platitudes, no matter how well intentioned they may be.

Here are some things not to say:

I know how you feel

This too shall pass

You will find a way to cope

It’s time to move on

At least he/she is no longer in pain

Don’t cry. He/she wouldn’t want that

And here are some comments that suicide grievers do generally find helpful:

I am sorry

Just know that I care

We all need help at times like this; I’m here for you

I can’t imagine how you feel, but I want to help in any way I can

I am here for you (then have an open heart and make time to listen)

I will stand with you through this time

When reaching out to a suicide griever choose your words carefully so that they heal rather than hurt. Tracy Roberts, who lost her sister to suicide, cited an example of hurtful words in her essay “Suicide Etiquette”: “After Amy killed herself, someone said, by way of comforting me, ‘Suicide is the coward’s way out.’ Besides being an inane truism, this pronouncement indicted the sister I was mourning. How was that supposed to console?”

Consider also this insight from Gayle Brandeis’s The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide: “While it can be tricky to know what to say to a suicide loss survivor, it is much better to reach out than to hold back out of fear of saying the wrong thing. A simple note, a simple gesture, can make a huge difference. ‘It was not your fault’ is something many suicide loss survivors need to hear over and over and over again, as is ‘You are not alone’.”

#4. Understand that suicide grief is different from other grieving. While there are many common elements of grief after a loved one has died, suicide grieving has additional and different components, making the grief process more complex. These are the four main challenges. First, there is the suddenness of the death—suicide is often unexpected, leaving no space to say goodbye or to resolve any lingering issues. Secondly, there is the anguished question of “why”. Survivors exhibit a frantic need to know why the suicide happened. There can be a desperate and relentless search for clues before there is recognition that they may never know why or fully understand the act. Thirdly, there can be acute guilt—often self-assigned. Both family members and friends experience intense guilt driven by “if only” thoughts—if only I had noticed; if only I hadn’t said that; if only I had said that; if only I had been home, et cetera. Supporters can try to gently guide grievers to recognise that they are not responsible for the person’s decision to end his or her life. Fourthly, there is the social stigma attached to a suicide. This can be seen by the simple fact that, until recently, a suicide act was considered a crime in many countries or a spiritual “unforgivable sin”. Also, the phrase “commit suicide” has a negative tone—similar to “commit murder” or “commit a crime”. Suicide survivors have to deal with a long history of stereotyping, mistrust, judgement, blaming and avoidance.

serdjophoto—Getty Images

#5. Recommend a suicide survivor support group. According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, research strongly indicates that survivors find suicide support groups to be powerful and therapeutic. “There are many general grief support groups, but those focused on suicide appear to be much more valuable. In a small pilot study that surveyed 63 adult suicide survivors about their needs and the resources they found helpful, 94 per cent of those who had participated in a suicide grief support group found it moderately or very helpful, compared with only 27 per cent of those who had attended a general grief group. The same study found that every survivor who had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with another suicide survivor found it beneficial.”

You can help a survivor by researching for a suicide support group in your area, providing the information, recommending parti­cipation and offering to attend a few sessions with the griever.

#6. Remember survivors on special days. A fresh wave of grief can be triggered throughout the year on special days: Christmas, New Year, Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, Mothers Day as well as birthdays, anniversaries and graduations. These days constitute some of the roughest terrain survivors have to travel through. Remember to reach out on these days. Even a simple text, email or mailed card can go a long way to lifting some of the anxiety and stress survivors feel on special days. On the anniversary of the suicide death, consider lighting a candle and sending an email to the survivor for whom the loss is most painful, saying something like this: “I’m guessing today may be a hard day for you, so I am lighting a candle of hope, remembrance and support for you.”

#7. Support sustainably. Be there for the long haul; for the entire journey through grief. Rabbi Grollman says, “The survivor-victims often need to talk about their loved one for months and years—not for just a few days follow­ing the funeral. Healing is a long, long process. Friends need to continue to call and visit. Survivor-­victims desperately need continuing love, support and concern.”

By extending support, sympathy and understanding to those who grieve, you will help suicide grievers know that it is possible to experience living while grieving. You, as a compassionate friend, will be a lifeline for suicide survivors, providing them stability and strength for their challenge.

If this article has raised any difficult feelings or issues for you, please speak to a trusted support person, or call Lifeline on 13 11 14  (Australia) or 0800 543 354 (New Zealand).


Victor Parachin is an ordained minister, bereavement educator and the author of several books about grief. He writes regularly for Signs of the Times.

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